About this blog

Physics can be difficult to learn, but this blog aims to help you get into physics by connecting your GCSE physics lessons with things you see in the world around you.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

Last night I went to see a recording of the Infinite Monkey Cage at the BBC Studios just off Regent Street, complete with Professor Brian Cox leading the show. The topic under discussion was the paranormal and the psychology behind why humans believe strange things. Not a GCSE subject, admittedly, but some of the ideas got me thinking.

If I give you a scenario that you can’t explain, like a flashing light in the sky, or a face visible in your bedroom curtains, you’ll soon find that if you explore things a little further they fall into two categories. Things where your imagination gets the better of you, so on closer observation all is normal, and things that you can’t quite explain. This can either mean that science does have an answer, but you don’t know it, or that science hasn’t got and reasoning (yet?).

This gap in what you see and what you know has been filled throughout history by all manner of beliefs. Today we have people who claim to be psychics, or have extra-sensory perception, and plenty of people who believe in ghosts or aliens, despite no evidence to back up these ideas. It seems that sometimes the desire to believe is so great, that people won’t even listen to reason. This is in part because it’s not a belief reached by reasoning so there’s no way to reason against it.

Some people take their beliefs even further and start to see things that confirm this. For example, there’s numerous examples of Jesus appearing on toast, crisps and all manner of items. Scientists think that we’re predisposed to create faces out of patterns because so much of our early survival was based on looking out for faces and recognising the friendly from the unfriendly. So face-finding is in our nature, and these believers just attribute their findings to Jesus.

Others find meaning in the randomness of life. This can be anything from the vague words of a psychic calling to a room full of people to attributing random coincides to fate or a higher power. It seems it’s something that many people crave, the meaning of all of this.

So where does this leave science? Sometimes it can seem that the explanations given for physical effects are about as odd as saying “it was a ghost I saw!”, especially when we get to the stranger side of things, like outer space or really tiny things on the nano-scale. So how do we know the difference? It’s nice when we can follow the experiment for ourselves, so that we can really believe in the results from a good, repeatable method, but sometimes it’s not that simple.

Again we have to believe, but it’s not a totally unfounded belief. We can follow the evidence that is presented, we can think about it, see if it’s a reasonable thing to do. We can trust the other experts in the field that they will do the checks that we can’t, as they have the resources and the know-how to follow through the ideas. And we can be open to new suggestions and alternative ideas, when evidence exists for that too.

In short, evidence is the key. You can only truly know something from your direct observations, but even then your mind can lead you astray, playing tricks on you and making monsters under the bed. That’s what stress does. So take a deep breath, think for a second and work on a logical and reasoned answer. And if all else fails ask Professor Brian Cox because he seems to know everything there is to know about Physics. Although if you don’t have a direct line to him, then you can ask me instead.

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